The Lewisburg Rotary Club held their regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 28, at the Lewisburg Elks Country Club.
The special speaker for this meeting was Kennie Bass, who has made national headlines over the last few months as he helped break the story about financial misconduct in the West Virginia Supreme Court, which ultimately led to the impeachment of all four Supreme Court justices. This event was the first in the history of this country; no entire Supreme Court had previously been impeached.
Bass is a native of Kanawha Valley and has been involved in broadcasting since 1978. He has an extensive background as a reporter, broadcaster, and news anchor. He graduated from Marshall University in 1985 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcast Journalism. On Aug. 3, 2018, he won the Edward R. Murrow Award for his Waste Watch Exclusive Investigation coverage on the opulent spending habits of the West Virginia Supreme Court. The report covered the extravagant tastes of the justices, including the now infamous $32,000 couch stationed in Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s office. The news quickly spread across the country, making national headlines and causing an uproar from tax-paying citizens around the state.
On Aug. 13 of this year, the House of Delegates voted to impeach Justices Margaret Workman, Beth Walker, Robin Davis, and Loughry on various articles, including for Davis and Loughry’s out-of-control office expenses. Davis announced her retirement shortly thereafter, triggering a special election for her replacement.
Bass discussed being approached by Steve Canterbury, a former administrative director with the Supreme Court, after Loughry fired him. “He contacted me and he gave me a folder of information,” said Bass. “What it showed was that from 2009 to 2017, the court had exercised lavish and excessive spending on itself. On renovations, remodeling, furniture, you name it.” But that wasn’t all. According to Bass, they also spent over $42,000 over a five-year period buying themselves and their court staffers lunches on a weekly basis.
“Each justice on the Supreme Court makes $136,000 per year,” Bass clarified, “and they were having working lunches that you were paying for.”
The justices also were found to have been using state vehicles and computers for personal use, were being reimbursed on travel expenses for personal trips, and were allowing for senior status judges to be paid higher than allowed wages.
“It was just a climate where they did whatever they wanted, and one reason they got away with it is West Virginia is the only state in America where there is no legislative or other kind of supervision of the judiciary body,” Bass emphasized. “When they are spending like this are you’re having trouble feeding your family, there’s a problem.” A proposed amendment to the West Virginia constitution will be on the ballot this November, and would place the judiciary budget under the supervision of the legislature.
The $32,000 couch that garnered so much outrage was just a part of over $363,000 Loughery spent on renovations to his office overall. The couch by itself was $8,500, and the fabric cost $23,425. “I’ve got the receipt,” Bass said as he held a small piece of paper in the air for the audience to see, “It’s a leather, blue sapphire, Kenya suede fabric. And that’s in his office.”
Bass discussed how, upon seeing the paper trail of the spending, he contacted Loughry and arranged an interview. They had a two-hour long meeting, at the end of which Loughry asked Bass to hold the story for two weeks. Loughry said that if Bass could hold the story that he would do an interview on camera, and he would provide them with access to the chambers. Two weeks later, Bass received a two-inch thick binder packed with details outlining the spending for every justice’s chamber, conference room, bathrooms, and more.
“It’s all here,” said Bass, “and the reason it’s all here is because Loughry wanted to throw everybody else under the bus. He was caught. I didn’t have this information, he provided it.” The color-coded, annotated binder also contains post-it notes written by Loughry himself, and passages that he highlighted that all focused on spending done by other justices.
Yet, Loughry still denied any involvement in the excessive spending, pointing the blame to the disgruntled Canterbury.
“Due to his continued insistence that he had no involvement in his office, he kept getting my full attention,” said Bass. “So, I got a hold of his emails, which prove that he was sending emails at 3 and 4 in the morning about the design of the floor, the couch, etc. But I also discovered this,” Bass paused to hold up a rough drawing to the crowd, “That is a hand-drawn diagram of Loughry’s chambers where you can clearly see the insignia on the floor, a couch, and a hidden TV in the wall. It’s amazing who drew this up… Justice Loughry.”
Four days after the emails were revealed in February, he was removed as chief justice.
Loughry proceeded to make a call to the U.S. Attorney’s office, convinced that Canterbury had committed criminal acts with his spending. Loughry then found himself the subject of a criminal investigation. He is now facing a 25-count indictment, and if convicted on all counts, could be sentenced to more than 400 years in prison and incur hefty fines. He is also facing a 32-count judicial investigation where he is charged with providing false information and lying to Bass and other news sources.
Surprisingly, Loughry’s $363,000 bill for office renovations wasn’t the most costly out of all the justice’s. Davis, who purchased a $8,000 desk chair from Germany with state money, spent a whopping $500,000 on her chambers. That includes two Edward Fields rugs totaling over $28,000. “It’s kind of a ‘90s Apple store look,” said Bass, “with lots of glass and chrome. If you’ve seen Star Trek it’s sort of a front of the Enterprise look.”
When the renovation project of the court started, the budget was estimated to be $867,000. After 37 change orders, the total came to about $3.7 million. “It’s almost inconceivable that you could be that numb to what you were doing, but that’s the culture that the court cultivated,” Bass said. “Absolute power does corrupt absolutely.”
Bass addressed how some consider this a Republican “coup,” with Republican Gov. Justice using the impeachments to stack the court with conservative justices. “Yeah, they are.” Bass said. “We all see it. But, I would offer you that if the Democrats were the majority, and the Republicans the minority, they would be doing the exact same thing.”
Under the West Virginia constitution, a justice can be impeached for “maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, and any high crime or misdemeanor.” Maladministration can mean a variety of things, it has no definition other than what one applies to it. The overspending falls under the maladministration category, and as Bass put it, “If you think that buying a $32,000 couch, although legal, is maladministration, you can go after impeachment.” Not having policies instilled to prevent this kind of maladministration from happening could, in itself, be seen as maladministration, he added. “Because they took no safeguards against excessive spending, no safeguards against protecting your assets from personal use, the House agrees on Article 14: that a lack of policies in place means that you weren’t doing your job.”
He wrapped up the discussion by saying that the justices are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.